LIVE: “Jazz at The Lake” (Day 2) @ Shepard Park, Lake George, 9/15/2019

So, it’s Sunday and it’s beautiful – and when I say “beautiful”, I mean sunny and in the low 50s when I stepped out of my motel room and went off in search of breakfast. It’s exactly the way Lake George should be at this time of year, with clear blue skies and air that snaps like properly-cooked bacon and lets you know, “Winter Is Coming… but in a GOOD way!” On Day 2 of “Jazz at The Lake”, I have friends who commandeer a set of Adirondack chairs at the foot of Shepard Park and just hang out, watching the morning go by until just before showtime. JATL regulars come for the music AND the beauty, and a lot of us are like kids on Christmas morning, up at the crack of dawn and raring to see what’s under the tree.

One this Sunday, the first gift under the tree was one we’d had before, but we welcomed it with open arms. On the list of Most Popular Acts @ JATL, John Ellis & Double-Wide are right near the top. Festival Director John Strong had them on his Wish List for this year’s show, and who can blame him? Ellis’ Brooklyn-goes to-NOLA hybrid literally had people dancing around the park during their last visit in 2011, when Kendrick Scott subbed on drums. This time, original Double-Wider Jason Marsalis was back behind the kit as the band prepared to hit the studio for the first time in almost four years – and, by all indications, they’re going to tear that sucker up.

Ellis began his rundown of the band’s last release – the 2016 Parade Light disc Charm – with the bouncing James Booker tribute “Booker.” Double-Wide started out as a quartet, so Ellis’ fiery sax work would have been enough to push the piece along; however, you pair him up with a whip-smart player like trombonist Alan Ferber, and you get both added muscle and a diabolical harmonic that grabs you by the short-and-curlies and says, “You’re coming with ME!” Both Ferber and sousaphone master Matt Perrine play instruments associated with New Orleans, but they play them without the tired old tricks you’d expect from those instruments, punching up the alt-jazz vibe that makes this group so unique.

Gary Versace on Hammond B3 is one of those combinations where you know it can only go well, and that was the case here: He jacked the party vibe up to 11 on “High & Mighty” and “Bovine Boogaloo” and smoked the blues on the set-closer “Yearn”; his mournful accordion on “Old Hotel” helped set the piece’s woeful-cum-spooky narrative perfectly. Perrine’s black AC/DC t-shirt encapsulated the rock-and-roll ‘tude he brings to the table, letting his freak flag fly on “International Tuba Day” which, Ellis informed us, is actually a Thing that happens every May! Finally, it was nice to have Marsalis back where he belongs, and back at Lake George. (His vibes band played the Saturday night show a few years back.) As hard as he’s worked to improve his work on mallets, Jason is Da Bomb behind the kit, and he dropped bombs all set long, making the band even more cheerfully explosive with each passing number.

It’s always good to be surprised at a jazz festival, and the surprise for me – and a lot of other people – was Nicole Zuraitis. The vocalist may not have appeared on my radar in the past, but her disc Hive Mind won Best Album at the International Music and Entertainment Awards, and her knockout take on the Dolly Parton classic “Jolene” was nominated for a Grammy. Anybody who wasn’t intrigued by those credits got intrigued when Zuraitis strode onstage, acknowledged the applause by telling us, “You’re great already…” and leapt into “Make It Flood”, an intensely personal piece from her as-yet-unrecorded new CD. Zuraitis has played one of my favorite spaces in NYC, 55 Bar in the Village, and working in that extremely intimate space may have inspired her to tell us, “There’s so MANY of you!”

Zuraitis credits Jane Monheit as her favorite singer, but I rank Zuraitis ahead of Monheit for two big reasons: First, Zuraitis writes her own material, and her deftness with a lyric is decidedly pronounced; second, she’s a damned good piano player, and she took enormous pleasure in the delightful interplay she had with monster guitarist Idan Morim (whose Outside In Music release I.M. should be on your Christmas list). Zuraitis put her interpretive powers to great use on Randy Newman’s “Guilty”, George Michael’s “Father Figure”, and Rusted Root’s “Send Me on My Way” and had us all dancing & singing to her killer take on “I Got My Mojo Working” – with JATL curator/MC Daniel Kelly strutting his considerable stuff on piano. Her best moment came on the whimsical original “I Love You a Latte”, a backhanded tribute to drummer/husband Dan Pugach’s former day gig as a barista. With an effervescent stage presence and a vocal style that’s equal parts Diana Krall and Bonnie Raitt, Nicole Zuraitis is already something special, but she also has the tools to be something very big. Watch this space.

Say what you want about the Grammys, they do occasionally get it right, and that’s what happened when the Dafnis Prieto Big Band’s Dafnison Music date Back to the Sunset won Best Latin Jazz Album earlier this year. The disc was a huge statement that I was more than happy to play on “Jazz2K @ The Saint”, but here’s the thing: Prieto – a former MacArthur Fellow and a widely acknowledged drummer, educator, and author – only brought a sextet to Lake George, so how were we get a sense of that disc’s scope? Well, Prieto followed the example of the late great Charles Mingus, bringing a sextet that SOUNDED like a big band!

A key part of that recipe is a world-class front line, and Prieto definitely had that in trumpeter Alex Pope Norris, altoist Roman Filiu, and multi-instrumentalist Peter Apfelbaum. The latter master has been part of just about every big band I’ve ever seen at JATL, and Apfelbaum’s virtuosity allowed Prieto to vary his musical & textural colors beautifully, particularly when Apfelbaum pulled out a melodica to add an accordion vibe to a brilliant tango piece. Then there was bassist Johannes Weidenmuller and pianist Osmany Paredes, who gave the foundation its own sense of melody when they weren’t hitting us with home-run solos of their own.

It was all going swimmingly until about a third of the way through the set, when the hit-and-run showers that had teased us Saturday morning decided to come back and stick around. While my notes disappeared into my backpack and were never seen again, those that had decided to see the closing act of the festival made no moves to leave: They just popped open their umbrellas or pulled out their garbage-bag ponchos and let Prieto continue his master class in 21st-century Afro-Cuban jazz. We may have gotten wet, but as far as we were concerned, it was a sunny afternoon in Havana and life was totally all right. Everything was totally all right at the 36th edition of “Jazz at The Lake”, proving that the legacy built by John Strong and the late Paul Pines just keeps on keeping on.

Photo Gallery by Rudy Lu

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